What makes a good Liturgical Translation?

As a frequent reader, sometime participant, of BetterBibleBlog [Wayne Leman, host and primary author] and Bible-Translation list, the issue of Bible translation is center stage. Bible translation has been an interest of mine for 25+ years, and learning Greek and Hebrew spurred my continued interest. At one time or another I have translated all but two (small) books of the NT, and portions of the OT. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I am concerned about good translations, especially for use in the Church and by the Church.

A couple of weeks ago on BBB, the discussion went to the relative merits of ESV and TNIV. I raised the concern about whether any translation makes for a good liturgical translation. What follows is an edited version of my comments.

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Wayne Leman asked: “Liturgically the ESV is much better than TNIV.” How do you determine what is liturgically better? Does it have to do with one’s personal preference for an older form of English that sounds more dignified or sacred? Or are there some objective criteria by which we can measure liturgical quality?

I think this might relate to whether someone comes from a liturgical background. That is, the general Protestant Christian congregation (especially in western cultures) today is essentially non-liturgical. By that I mean that what was the liturgical form of worship for the past 1,500 years has not been retained among these congregations (this is not meant as a judgmental statement, but an observation). The historic liturgical form included spoken/sung responses (Kyrie, Alleluia, Gloria Patri, Te Deum, Nunc Dimittis, Agnus Dei, etc.).

Thus, part of the liturgical use of a translation relates to how the translation expresses and relates to these traditional musical/lyrical/rhythmic elements. This is both a translational and a musical process/evaluation. It is interesting that when the LCMS (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) had worked with the LCA and ALC on a new hymnal, eventually Lutheran Book of Worship LBW, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Psalm texts were translated specifically for the hymnal. However, when the LCMS pulled out of the project due to theological problems with the project itself, the LCMS couldn’t use those translated Psalms, and so settled for the NIV for the Psalms text — because it was royalty-free!

But this brings up another point — whose text is it? and what purpose does it serve? Dr. Theodore Letis has written about this in the book The Ecclesiastical Text. That is, the Church (not referring to a denomination) has traditionally been the retainer of the text, translator of the text, and especially the user of the text. In the last 100 years there has been a major shift from the Church to the Academic and parachurch organizations (publishers) who have taken over the role of translation and Bible “selling”. Sadly many in the parachurch groups do not have the liturgical heritage to evaulate whether a translation is good for liturgical purposes.

And finally, the liturgical text must have the oral/rhythmic quality that can only be heard and not just read on the page. This is a critical factor for any translation (and one which GW does well), but especially for a liturgical translation (which GW doesn’t do as well).

Wayne wrote: Ideally, we want a Bible that contains good quality English wordings … is highly accurate, and sounds good for public reading, including liturgical reading.

I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I suspect part of the problem with English word choices relates to whether a translation should use Latin-based words (“expiation”) or highly specific “church-language” words: righteousness, justification, grace, reconciliation, etc. Since I use the text within the context of the faith community, I believe that it is important to grow the believer into the knowledge of the faith. This is the point at which liturgy, translation, and catechesis come together. They become both faith expressions and teachers of the faith. Thus, an 80 year old great-grandmother and an 8 year old great-granddaughter can recite texts based on a common liturgical heritage (I have examples of the Lord’s Prayer), where small accomodations for language changes still allow the rhythm of singing/chanting/reading the same text.

I remember the struggle I had with God’s Word translation as it field-tested some translation choices. Obviously grace, righteousness, justification were at the top of the translators’ list of “alternatives”. They were correct in pointing out that many people in the test congregations misunderstood the words (our congregation at the time did quite well in understanding the meaning as related in the Biblical texts). The solution for the GW translation team was to use words that may or may not have been better: God’s approval instead of righteousness. However, that choice too may be misleading. And yet GW retained righteousness 130 times, and in several key OT passages (i.e., Psalm 4:1, 5; 9:8; 50:6; 97:2; Isaiah 1:27; 5:7; 9:7; 51:7, 8; 54:14; 56:1; 58:14) and then 1 Corinthians 1:30. My solution would be to continue to teach people so that they grow in the understanding of what is behind the translation whether TSeDiQ (צדק) or DIKAISOUNH (Greek: δικαισυνη). And by retaining righteousness there is a historic link — theologically and liturgically.

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I don’t have a final answer about translations and liturgical use. But it seems that this is a critical factor that is often ignored by translation committees. I have read several books about how various translations were made, including the decision-making agenda on wording and the translating process. Not once have I read anything that relates to liturgical worship. To me, this suggests a major need for translators and liturgical churches. And who knows, perhaps the focus on a litrugical translation might avoid some of the traditional conservative/liberal splits that fracture churches and even translation committees.

My little plea is that translation committees m ake a concerted effort to examine the translation in light of and for liturgical use.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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8 Responses to What makes a good Liturgical Translation?

  1. Scott says:

    I like your blog. You have always had some very good views in these areas.

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  2. exegete77 says:

    Howdy, Scott. Glad you dropped by. I have more to write on each of these topics, but not enough time (or energy!).

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  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Good post, Rich. I have linked to it from a post on the Better Bibles Blog.

    FWIW, my last name is spelled “Leman.” But we are happy to accept mail with our name spelled the more common way, “Lehman,” especially if there are checks in the mail!! 🙂

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  4. exegete77 says:

    Sorry, Wayne. Do you know how many times I have visited your site and the Bible-Translation List, and I always saw “Lehman”? I am getting too old!! “The check is in the mail…” LOL

    I was pleased to see Stephen’s response, and the links to the LCMS documents. My hope is that this discussion will raise awareness of this critical factor in Bible translation.

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  5. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    Sorry to dredge this post up from your archives, but I wanted to note that, with respect to liturgical worship, the Revised English Bible (REB) was produced with public recitation specifically in mind. From the Preface:

    “Care has been taken to ensure that the style of English used in fluent and of appropriate dignity for liturgical use, while maintaining intelligibility for worshippers of a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The revisers have sought to avoid complex or technical terms where possible, and to provide sentence structure and word order, especially in the Psalms, which will facilitate congregational reading but will not misrepresent the meaning of the original texts.”

    I’ve greatly enjoyed the REB and found it to be one of the few Bibles that reads as easily with my ears as with my eyes.

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  6. exegete77 says:

    ElShaddai, glad to see your comments. No need to worry about “dregding up an old thread.” This topic is important, and yet seldom addressed. Thanks for the point about the REB. Unfortunately the REB is almost unknown in the US.

    Just out of curiosity does the REB work well for liturgical singing (Gloria Patri, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus, Dei, etc.)?

    Rich

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  7. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    I couldn’t honestly tell you. I’ve never been a part of a church that had liturgical singing, much less reference it in Latin. Well, the Lutheran Church had a liturgy that’s kind of sung, but I can’t remember any of it other than “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” (Psalm 51).

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  8. exegete77 says:

    As Lutherans we sing the liturgy in English, but I referenced the traditional titles of those portions, for common reference. One of the Offertories is “Create in me a clean heart…” A more recent one is “What shall I render to the Lord…” (Psalm 116:12ff)

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